The Summons (novel)/XVII
The great cape thrusts its knees far out into the Mediterranean, and close down by the sea on the very point a lighthouse stands out from the green mass like a white pencil. South-westwards the land runs sharply back in heights of tangled undergrowths and trees, overhangs a wide bay and drops at the end of the bay to the mouth of a spacious, empty harbour. Eastwards the cape slopes inland at a gentler angle with an undercliff, a narrow plateau, and behind the plateau mountain walls. Two tiny fishing villages cluster a mile or two apart at the water's edge, and high up on the cape's flanks here and there a small rude settlement clings to the hillside. There are no roads to the cape. From the east you may ride a horse towards it, and lose your way. From the west you must approach by boat. So remote and unvisited is this region that the women in these high villages, their homes cut out of the actual brown rock, still cover their faces with the Moorish veil.
There are no roads, but José Medina was never deterred by the lack of roads. His business, indeed, was a shy one, and led him to prefer wild country. A high police official in one great town said of him:
"For endurance and activity there is no one like José Medina between the sea and the Pyrenees. You think him safe in Mallorca and look! He lands one morning from the steamer, jumps into a motor-car, and in five minutes—whish!—he is gone like the smoke of my cigarette. He will drive his car through our mountains by tracks, of which the guardia civil does not even know the existence."
By devious tracks, then, now through narrow gullies in brown and barren mountains, now striking some village path amidst peach trees and marguerites, José Medina drove Martin Hillyard down to the edge of the sea. Here amongst cactus bushes in flower, with turf for a carpet, a camp had been prepared near to one of the two tiny villages. José Medina was king in this region. The party arrived in the afternoon of the twenty-sixth day of the month, all of the colour of saffron from the dust-clouds the car had raised, and Hillyard so stiff and bruised with the intolerable jolting over ruts baked to iron, that he could hardly climb down on to the ground. He slept that night amidst such a music of birds as he had never believed possible one country could produce. Through the night of the twenty-sixth he and José Medina watched; their lanterns ready to their hands. Lights there were in plenty on the sea, but they were the lights of acetylene lamps used by the fishermen of those parts to attract the fish; and the morning broke with the lighthouse flashing wanly over a smooth sea, pale as fine jade.
"There are three more nights," said Hillyard. He was a little dispirited after the fatigue of the day before and the long, empty vigil on the top of the day.
The next watch brought no better fortune. There was no moon; the night was of a darkness so clear that the stars threw pale and tremulous paths over the surface of the water, and from far away the still air vibrated from time to time with the throbbing of propellers as the ships without lights passed along the coast.
Hillyard rose from the blanket on which he and José Medina had been lying during the night. It had been spread on a patch of turf in a break of the hill some hundreds of feet above the sea. He was cold. The blanket was drenched and the dew hung like a frost on bush and grass.
"It looks as if they had found out," he said.
"This is only the second night," said José Medina.
"It all means so much to me," replied Hillyard, shivering in the briskness of the morning.
"Courage, the little Marteen!" cried José Medina. "After breakfast and a few hours' sleep, we shall take a rosier view."
Hillyard, however, could not compose himself to those few hours. The dread lest the Germans should have discovered the interception of their letters weighed too heavily upon him. Even in the daylight he needs must look out over that placid sunlit sea and imagine here and there upon its surface the low tower and grey turtle-back of a submarine. Success here might be so great a thing, so great a saving of lives, so dire a blow to the enemy. Somehow that day slowly dragged its burning hours to sunset, the coolness of the evening came, and the swift darkness upon its heels, and once more, high up on the hillside, the vigil was renewed. And at half-past one in the morning, far away at sea, a green light, bright as an emerald, flashed thrice and was gone.
"Did I not say to you, 'Have courage'?" said José Medina.
"Quick! the Lanterns!" replied Hillyard. "The red first! Good! Now the white. So! And the red again. Now we must wait!" and he sank down again upon the blanket. All the impatience and languor were gone from him. The moment had come. He was at once steel to meet it.
"Yes," said José Medina, "we shall see nothing more now for a long while."
They heard no sound in that still night; they saw no gleam of lights. It seemed to Hillyard that aeons passed before José touched him on the elbow and pointed downwards.
"Look!" he whispered excitedly.
Right at their very feet the long, grim vessel lay, so near that Hillyard had the illusion he could pitch a stone on to the conning tower. He now held his breath, lest his breathing should be heard. Then the water splashed, and a moment afterwards the submarine turned and moved to sea. They gave it five minutes, and then climbed down to a tiny creek. A rowing-boat lay in readiness there, with one man at the tiller and two at the oars.
"You saw it, Manuel?" said Medina as he and Hillyard stepped in.
"Yes, Señor José. It was very close. Oh, they know these waters!"
The oars churned the phosphorescent water into green fire, and the foam from the stem of the boat sparkled as though jewels were scattered into it by the oarsmen as they rowed. They stopped alongside a little white buoy which floated on the water. The buoy was attached to a rope; that again to a chain. A mat was folded over the side of the boat and the chain drawn cautiously in and coiled without noise. Hillyard saw the two men who were hauling it in bend suddenly at their work and heave with a greater effort.
"It is coming," said one of them, and the man at the tiller went forward to help them. Hillyard leaned over the side of the heavy boat and stared down into the water. But the night was too dark for him to see anything but the swirl of green fire made by the movement of the chain and the fire-drops falling from the links. At last something heavy knocked against the boat's flanks.
"Once more," whispered the man from the tiller. "Now!"
And the load was perched upon the gunwale and lowered into the boat. It consisted of three square and bulky metal cases, bound together by the chain.
"We have it, my friend Marteen," whispered José Medina, with a laugh of sheer excitement. He was indeed hardly less stirred than Hillyard himself. "Not for nothing did the little Marteen lead the horse across the beach of Benicassim. Now we will row back quickly. We must be far away from here by the time the world is stirring."
The boatmen bent to their oars with a will, and the boat leaped upon the water. They had rowed for fifty yards when suddenly far away a cannon boomed. The crew stopped, and every one in the boat strained his eyes seawards. Some one whispered, and Hillyard held up his hand for silence. Thus they sat immobile as figures of wax for the space of ten minutes. Then Hillyard relaxed from his attention.
"They must have got her plump with the first shot," he said; and, indeed, there was no other explanation for that boom of a solitary cannon across the midnight sea.
José Medina laughed.
"So the little Marteen had made his arrangements?"
"What else am I here for?" retorted the little Marteen, and though he too laughed, a thrill of triumph ran through the laugh. "It just needed that shot to round all off. I was so afraid that we should not hear it, that it might never be fired. Now it will never be known, if your men keep silent, whether they sunk their cargo or were sunk with it on board."
The crew once more drove the blades of their oars through the water, and did not slacken till the shore was reached. They clambered up the rocks to their camp bearing their treasure, and up from the camp again to the spot where José's motor-car was hidden. José talked to the boatmen while the cans were stowed away in the bottom of the car, and then turned to Hillyard.
"There will be no sign of our camp at daybreak. The tent will be gone—everything. If our luck holds—and why should it not?—no one need ever know that the Señor Marteen and his friend José Medina picnicked for three days upon that cape."
"But the lighthouse-keepers! What of them?" objected Hillyard. In him, too, hope and excitement were leaping high. But this objection he offered up on the altars of the gods who chastise men for the insolence of triumph.
"What of them?" José Medina repeated gaily. "They, too, are my friends this many a year." He seated himself at the wheel of the car. "Come, for we cannot drive fast amongst these hills in the dark."
Hillyard will never forget to the day of his death that wild passage through the mountains. Now it was some sudden twist to avoid a precipice, now a jerk and a halt whilst José stared into the darkness ahead of him; here the car jolted suddenly over great stones, then it sank to the axle in soft dust; at another place the bushes whipped their faces; and again they must descend and build a little bridge of boughs and undergrowth over a rivulet. But so high an elation possessed him that he was unconscious both of the peril and the bruises. He could have sung aloud. They stopped an hour after daybreak and breakfasted by the side of the car in a high country of wild flowers. The sun was hidden from them by a barrier of hills.
"We shall strike an old mine-road in half an hour," said José Medina, "and make good going."
They came into a district of grey, weathered rock, and, making a wide circuit all that day, crept towards nightfall down to the road between Aguilas and Cartagena; and once more the sea lay before them.
"We are a little early," said Medina. "We will wait here until it is dark. The carabineros are not at all well disposed to me, and there are a number of them patrolling the road."
They were above the road and hidden from it by a hedge of thick bushes. Between the leaves Hillyard could see a large felucca moving westwards some miles from the shore and a long way off on the road below two tiny specks. The specks grew larger and became two men on horses. They became larger still, and in the failing light Hillyard was just able to distinguish that they wore the grey uniform of the Guardia Civil.
"Let us pray," said Medina with a note of anxiety in his voice, "that they do not become curious about our fishing-boat out there!"
As he spoke the two horsemen halted, and did look out to sea. They conversed each with the other.
"If I were near enough to hear them!" said José Medina, and he suddenly turned in alarm upon Hillyard. "What are you doing?" he said.
Hillyard had taken a large.38 Colt automatic pistol from his pocket. His face was drawn and white and very set.
"I am doing nothing—for the moment," he answered. "But those two men must ride on before it is dark and too late for me to see them."
"But they are of the Guardia Civil," José Medina expostulated in awed tones.
To the Spaniard, the mere name of the Guardia Civil, so great is its prestige, and so competent its personnel, inspires respect.
"I don't care," answered Hillyard savagely. "In this war why should two men on a road count at all? Let them go on, and nothing will happen."
José Medina, who had been assuming the part of protector and adviser to his young English friend, had now the surprise of his life. He found himself suddenly relegated to the second place and by nothing but sheer force of character. Hillyard rested the point of his elbow on the earth and supported the barrel of his Colt upon his left forearm. He aimed carefully along the sights.
"Let them go on!" he said between his teeth. "I will give them until the last moment—until the darkness begins to hide them. But not a moment longer. I am not here, my friend, for my health. I am here because there is a war."
"The little Marteen" was singularly unapparent at this moment. Here was just the ordinary appalling Englishman who had not the imagination to understand what a desperately heinous crime it would be to kill two of the Guardia Civil, who was simply going to do it the moment it became necessary, and would not lose one minute of his sleep until his dying day because he had done it. José Medina was completely at a loss as he looked into the grim indifferent face of his companion. The two horsemen were covered. The Colt would kill at more than five hundred yards, and it had no more to do than carry sixty. And still those two fools sat on their horses, and babbled to one another, and looked out to sea.
"What am I to do with this loco Inglès?" José Medina speculated, wringing his hands in an agony of apprehension. He had no share in those memories which at this moment invaded Martin Hillyard, and touched every fibre of his soul. Martin Hillyard, though his eye never left the sights of his Colt nor his mind wavered from his purpose, was with a subordinate consciousness stealing in the dark night up the footpath between the big, leafy trees over the rustic railway bridge to the summit of the hill. He was tramping once more through lanes, between fields, and stood again upon a hillock of Peckham Rye, and saw the morning break in beauty and in wonder over London. The vision gained from the foolish and romantic days of his boyhood, steadied his finger upon the trigger after all these years.
Then to José's infinite relief the two horsemen rode on. The long, black, shining barrel of the Colt followed them as they dwindled on the road. They turned a corner, and as Hillyard replaced his pistol in his pocket, José Medina rolled over on his back, and clapped his hands to his face.
"You might have missed," he gasped. "One of them at all events."
Hillyard turned to him with a grin. The savage was not yet exorcised.
"Why?" he asked. "Why should I have missed one of them? It was my business not to."
José Medina flung up his hands.
"I will not argue with you. We are not made of the same earth."
Hillyard's face changed to gentleness.
"Pretty nearly, my friend," he said, and he laid a hand on José Medina's shoulder. "For we are good friends—such good friends that I do not scruple to drag you into the same perils as myself."
Hillyard had not wasted his time during those three years when he loafed and worked about the quays of Southern Spain. He touched the right chord now with an unerring skill. Hillyard might be the mad Englishman, the loco Inglès! But to be reckoned by one of them as one of them—here was an insidious flattery which no one of José Medina's upbringing could possibly resist.
At nightfall they drove down across the road on to the beach. A rowing-boat was waiting, and Medina's manager from Alicante beside the boat on the sand. The cases were quickly transferred from the car to the boat.
"We will take charge of the car," said José to his manager, and he stepped into the boat, and sat down beside Hillyard. "This is my adventure. I see it through to the end," he explained.
A mile away the felucca picked them up. Hillyard rolled himself up in a rug in the bows of the boat. He looked up to the stars tramping the sky above his head.
"And gentlemen in England now a-bed."
Drowsily he muttered the immemorial line, and turning on his side slept as only the tired men who know they have done their work can sleep. He was roused in broad daylight. The felucca was lying motionless upon the water; no land was anywhere in sight; but above the felucca towered the tall side of the steam yacht Dragonfly.
Fairbairn was waiting at the head of the ladder. The cases were carried into the saloon and opened. The top cases were full of documents and letters, some private, most of them political.
"These are for the pundits," said Hillyard. He put them back again, and turned to the last case. In them were a number of small glass tubes, neatly packed in cardboard boxes with compartments lined with cotton wool.
"This is our affair, Fairbairn," he said. He took one out, and a look of perplexity crept over his face. The tube was empty. He tried another and another, and then another; every one of the tubes was empty.
"Now what in the world do you make of that?" he asked.
The tubes had yet to be filled and there was no hint of what they were to be filled with.
"What I am wondering about is why they troubled to send the tubes at all?" said Fairbairn slowly. "There's some reason, of course, something perhaps in the make of the glass."
He held one of the tubes up to the light. There was nothing to distinguish it from any one of the tubes in which small tabloids are sold by chemists.
Hillyard got out of his bureau the letter in which these tubes were mentioned.
"'They have been successful in France,'" he said, quoting from the letter. "The scientists may be able to make something of them in Paris. This letter and the tubes together may give a clue. I think that I had better take one of the boxes to Paris."
"Yes," said Fairbairn gloomily. "But——" and he shrugged his shoulders.
"But it's one of the ninety per cent. which go wrong, eh?" Hillyard finished the sentence with bitterness. Disappointment was heavy upon both men. Hillyard, too, was tired by the tension of these last sleepless days. He had not understood how much he had counted upon success.
"Yes, it's damnably disheartening," he cried. "I thought these tubes might lead us pretty straight to B45."
The exclamation came from José Medina, who was leaning against the doorpost of the saloon, half in the room, half out on the sunlit deck. He had placed himself tactfully aloof. The examination of the cases was none of his business. Now, however, his face lit up.
"B45." He shut the door and took a seat at the table. "I can tell you about B45."